30 May 2010

Short stories 141-145

The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. Wilde had a talent for writing tales that played expertly on the emotions that was perhaps only equalled by Hans Christian Andersen. This story is no exception – it’s a tale of redemption that, while sugary sweet, can still bring a tear to the eye and has deservedly become a classic. Recommended.

Julia Cahill’s Curse” by George Moore. Originally from The Untilled Field. A rather good story about an independent-minded young woman and her revenge against the patriarchy.

That Brute Simmons” by Arthur Morrison. Originally from Tales of Mean Streets. A humorous tale of a husband who finally got enough. Recommended.

Here ends the chapter of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh stories and the short stories of the Germanns begin.

“The Coming of Gandin” by Gottfried von Strassburg. Originally from Tristan and Iseault. A self-contained story from a longer narrative, a clever story of trickery turned against a trickster.

“Bruin the Bear and Reynard the Fox” by Anonymous. Originally from The Pleasant History of Reynard the Fox. Another self-contained story from a longer narrative, this one about a cruel trick well-played.

29 May 2010

Just finished

A commenter on the Smart Bitches blog mentioned that the plot of a book a reader was looking for the title of sounded like a modern rip-off of Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub and set off a discussion of that book. So naturally I had to read it to see for myself what they were talking about.

I am ashamed to admit that I have several of Georgette Heyer's novels sitting on my TBR shelf, waiting to be read. You see, I love Heyer's writing. She is my favourite writer of historical novels, and yet I have had some of those books for several years and never tried to read them, because I have just never felt like it. In the meantime I have re-read most of my Heyer favourites at least once.

Well, the discussion finally got me into the mood to read more Heyer, and need I say I loved it? I did, although not as much as These Old Shades, in which the Duke of Avon and Léonie, the parents of the hero of this book, found each other. The Marquis of Vidal, their son, is not as attractive a hero as his father (my very favourite of Heyer's heroes), but the plot is a wonderful romp and the dialogue is as delightful as it always is in Heyer's books. The few appearances of Avon had me wishing there was more of him in the book. I pulled an all-nighter to finish it in one session, and did not regret a few yawns and drooping eyelids at work. 4+ stars.

I am now re-reading Venetia, and if I am still hungry for more once I have finished that, I'll pick one I haven't read before, probably Sprig Muslin or Arabella, or possibly Faro's Daughter.

28 May 2010

Friday night folklore: The bear and the baby

I will probably include one or two tales of selkies and kelpies in this collection later on - folklore that Iceland shares with other northern European countries like the Faeroe Islands, Norway, Ireland and Scotland. However, I haven't come across the following piece of folklore in the folk tales of other countries. If you know of similar folklore about bears in other countries, please leave a comment.

The story goes that bears(*) are really humans under a curse, and that the she-bears give birth to human babies that only turn into bears if the mother is able to pass her paw over them.

The story is told that once upon a time on Grímsey, an island and the northernmost inhabited part of Iceland, that a man noticed a she-bear that looked poorly. He went into the barn and got her some warm cow's milk to drink. Later that same night, when he came back to give the cows their evening feed, the she-bear was in the barn, giving birth. He was able to get one cub from her - a large and healthy human girl-child. He took her back to the farm and there she lived for some time, was in good health and grew quickly.
She was, however, always trying to leave the house after she was able to walk, and would always head towards the sea. Finally, she made it to the sea and climbed aboard an iceberg. Then the she-bear appeared and passed her paw over the girl, who immediately turned into a bear cub.

(*) To Icelanders in the old days a "bear" meant a "polar bear".

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

Short stories 136-140

As you can see below, I have started linking to online editions of the stories I have been reading. I have also gone back to the previous 365 short stories posts and linked to all the stories I could find online. I will continue to do so as I post more mini-reviews. If anyone wants to discuss the stories with me, you can post a comment under the post for the story in question.

The White Trout” by Samuel Lover. A dramatised folk tale or a short story written to resemble a folk tale, this is a nicely mythical story of how a supernatural event turns a bad man good. (The edition I read begins with the sentence "There was wanst upon a time..." - the online edition is longer)

“The Old Man’s Tale of the Queer Client” by Charles Dickens. From The Pickwick Papers. A dramatic and atmospheric tale of obsessive vengeance. While a modern reader might find it somewhat overwritten and even melodramatic, it is a fine example of the English 19th century short story. Recommended. (I'm linking to the book; the narrative is in chapter XXI)

A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins. Another fine example of the 19th century English short story, this one a nightmarish thriller with a long, spine-tingling build-up that Poe would have been proud to have written. Recommended.

Squire Petrick's Lady” by Thomas Hardy. Originally from A Group of Noble Dames. A well-told humorous tale about vanity.

Thrawn Janet” by Robert Louis Stevenson. A chilling and effective horror story. The use of dialect is brilliant and makes the horror more realistic, but this could prove a difficult read for a reader not familiar with the Scots accent and vocabulary, as the words are written as they should be spoken and there are a number of dialect words that would send such a reader straight to the dictionary and spoil the reading. Recommended.

27 May 2010

The Princeton Murders by Ann Waldron

Here is the seventh book I read for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, which puts me just past the halfway point of the Bibliomaniac level.

This book fits into the challenge in several ways:
The main sleuth is a journalist, and her writing course is featured and the classes described several times; the other teachers are writing or have written books (one is a world-famous author) - two even have motives for murder related to their books; and the students are writing assignments that are part of what drives a section of the story.

Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 2003
No. in series: 1
Series detective: McLeod Dulane
Type of mystery: Murder, cosy
Type of investigator:A, journalist and lecturer in non-fiction writing at Princeton University
Setting & time: Princeton University campus, New Jersey, USA

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist McLeod Dulane is thrilled to be given a chance to teach journalistic writing at Princeton University, but her enthusiasm wanes somewhat when two of her colleagues at the English Department mysteriously die within a short time of each other, from what could be poisoning. A group of her students, eager for some juicy material to research and write about, set out to discover who could have wanted the men dead, and curious to know the truth, McLeod delves into the investigation with them. But then a definite murder is committed...

This is in many ways quite a good crime novel. While it is the author’s first, there is little firstbookitis to worry about, as Waldron is an experienced writer (of journalism, biographies and children’s books). Her experience as a writer is obvious, which is why it surprised me to see her break one of the principles of good writing, the "show, don’t tell" rule. While I am aware that both have their place and sometimes telling is actually more effective than showing (especially in a fast-paced story), in the particular case I am thinking about, showing would have been so much more effective, and there was plenty of text to do it in. In a novel like this, the reader likes to figure out for herself that there is a sinister undertow in the social interactions of the main characters, and not just be told that the sleuth feels this is so, without further explanations.

Other than this tiny annoyance, Waldron does a good job of telling (and showing) a good story, with nice twists and red herrings and a more plausible investigation and investigators than some other cosies I have read. The characterisations of the faculty members are spot on – they are easily recognised academic types, but most have too much depth to be straight-on stereotypes. Add to this that McLeod is a character I like, and I think I have found an author I want to read more books by.

I did spot the killer even before there was any murder, and as the story wore on I did think the author did protest the character's innocence too much at times (I hope I haven't said too much...), but as I have mentioned before, sometimes it's the revelation of motives and opportunities that is important for the enjoyment of a story and not the whodunnit.

An absorbing and interesting academic mystery. 3+ stars.

Visit Ann Waldron's website

24 May 2010

Short stories 131-135

“Roberto’s Tale” by Robert Greene. Originally from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance. Ugh! (The edition i read seems to have been heavily edited from the original, so no link).

True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal” by Daniel Defoe. A rather dull ghost story that reads more like a newspaper article than a deliberate work of fiction.

The Story of an Heir” by Joseph Addison. Originally published in The Spcetator. A short romantic moral tale.

“The Disabled Soldier” by Oliver Goldsmith. Originally from The Citizen of the World. Another short moral tale, but not quite so sickly sweet as the previous one.

"The Bridal of Janet Dalrymple" by Sir Walter Scott. Although I can’t find a publication date for this story to confirm it, this seems to be an early version of the story Scott would later expand into novel form in The Bride of Lammermoor. The tightly written dramatic narrative of the tragic story of thwarted love is ruined by an unnecessary documentary style postscript that seems to be trying to offer proof that it is a true story.

Now reading

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters, being the 6th chronicle of Brother Cadfael.

Here Brother Cadfael is thinking about fate and accidents of birth:

Well, they happen, the lightning-strokes of God, the gifted or misfortunates who are born into a world where they nowhere belong, the saints and scholars who come to manhood unrecognised, guarding the swine in the forest pastures among the beech-mast, the warrior-princes villein-born and youngest in a starving clan, set to scare crows away from the furrow. Just as hollow slave-rearlings are cradled in the palaces of kings, and come to rule, however ineptly, over men a thousand times their worth.

23 May 2010

Short stories 121-125

“The sailor and the pearl merchant”. A Persian fairy tale. A splendid example of classical storytelling that would not have felt out of place in The Thousand Nights and One Night. Recommended.

“Khaled and Djaida” by Al-Asma'i. Originally from The Romance of Antar. An entertaining Arabian tale of pride, love and heroism, with a surprisingly feminist heroine.

“Esyllt and Sabrina” by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Originally from The Chronice of Geoffrey of Monmouth. A sad legend that seems mostly to have been composed to give an etymology to some English place names.

Here begins the part of the book that contains stories by English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh authors.

“The Humbling of Jovinian” by Anonymous. Originally from the Gesta Romanorum. A particularly loathful Christian parable clearly meant to be inserted into sermons. Definitely not recommended.

“Lludd and Llevelys” by Anonymous. Originally from The Mabinogion. A Welsh folktale with magical elements. Made me want to read the rest of The Mabinogion.

21 May 2010

Friday night folk tale: Axlar-Björn

In Snæfellsnes in western Iceland there lived, in the 16th century, a man who to this day remains the country’s most notorious serial killer (as a matter of fact, I can't even think of another one). His name was Björn, and he was nick-named after the farm he lived on and called Axlar-Björn. While he was a real person, he has become the subject of several folk tales. His wife, Þórdís, was his accomplice. In the version of the story I am retelling here she is however called Steinunn. Here is his story – one folk tale version:

When Björn’s mother was pregnant with him, she was overcome with a longing to drink human blood. She hid it for a long time, but finally her husband was able to drag it out of her. He loved her very much and so he humoured her and gave her some of his own blood to drink. After this she had some bad nightmares and became filled with a fear that the child she was carrying would be a monster of some kind.

When he was 5 years old, Björn was sent to live as the foster child of his father’s former employer, a rich farmer(*). Once Björn stayed home and slept while everyone else went to church. He dreamed that a stranger came to him and offered him a plate of meat. In the dream he ate 18 pieces of the meat, but choked on the 19th. As a reward for his appetite, the stranger told him where to find an axe that was hidden under a rock, saying it would make him famous one day. Not long after this one of the farm workers disappeared.

As an adult, Björn married one of the maids on the farm and his foster brother gave them the farm of Öxl to live on. They had only a small number of farm workers, but kept them well fed and clothed. People wondered at how many horses Björn owned, and the suspicion arose that he was stealing them, and some even suspected him of murdering people for their possessions.

In those days it was an almost holy duty for all farmers to receive travellers into their homes and give them food and shelter for the night. One of these travellers had a close escape. He had been given a bed in a room separated from the main sleeping quarters (**). He couldn’t sleep and got up and started looking about him and found a dead man under the bed. The man had clearly been murdered, and the visitor suspected that this was to be his fate as well, so he took the corpse and put it into the bed and covered it with the blanket. Then he hid under the bed. Some time in the middle of the night Björn and his wife, Steinunn, came into the room and Björn was carrying an axe – presumable the same one the man in the dream gave him. He drove it hard into the body in the bed, thinking it was the visitor.
Steinunn then said:
“Why isn’t he struggling as he dies?”
Björn answered: “He gave a small sigh. I hit him well and hard, woman.”
Then they departed. The visitor was half-paralysed with fear, but got from under the bed and made his escape.

Although the rumours about Björn’s behaviour were widespread, no-one dared to accuse him because of his friendship with his foster brother, who was an even richer and more powerful man than his father had been. However, their relationship began to cool after Björn came after him with the axe. Steinunn managed to smooth things over, but the man told her that Björn would not long remain on the loose even if he were to give him his protection.

In the Easter week of that same year a young brother and sister arrived at Öxl late at night in bad weather and asked for shelter. They were given dry clothes and food. When both Björn and Steinunn left the common room, an old woman who was putting a baby to sleep started muttering a lullaby:

No-one stay at Gunnbjörn’s house, (***)
Whose clothes are fine and goodly;
He puts them in the pond outside,
The blood flows,
Along the tracks,
Hush, hush-a-bye, my baby girl.

This horrible lullaby naturally made them nervous. After they had eaten, the girl walked into another part of the house. Shortly afterwards her brother heard a strange sound that frightened him and he suspected that his sister was being murdered. He ran out and into the stable and Björn came running after him. The boy made it into the barn and got out through a window there and hid in a hole in a nearby lava field while Björn searched for him (+). When he gave up the search and went back into the farm, the boy climbed out of the hole and made it to the nearest farm. The farmer there took him straight to the local sheriff.

On Easter Sunday the sheriff rode out to Öxl with two strong men and confronted Björn about the rich clothing he was wearing, a hood and vest with silver buttons. The sheriff’s companions recognised the clothing as having belonged to a farmhand of the sheriff’s who had disappeared two years earlier. They then arrested Björn and his wife on suspicion of having murdered the farm-hand and the girl.

Björn confessed that he had murdered a total of 18 people, the first being the missing farm worker from when he was a young boy. That body had been buried under the dung heap in the cow byre, but the rest he had weighed down with rocks and dumped into the pond near the farm with the help of his wife. They were both condemned to death, but Steinunn was pregnant and her execution was delayed until she had given birth (++).

Björn was to have all his limbs broken with a sledgehammer before being beheaded. A cousin of his, named Ólafur, was hired to carry out the execution. Björn made no sound and showed no signs of pain at the torture. While Ólafur was breaking his bones, he let fly comments on his progress. When all the limbs had been broken, Steinunn remarked:
“My Björn is beginning to become short of limbs,” and Björn replied:
“There is still one to go, and better would it be off,” and with that the axe fell and ended the life of this notorious murderer.

(*) In those days fostering children with rich relatives or friends was a common way for poor people to ensure their children a better life.
(**) Space was limited in the old turf houses and everyone would sleep in one room, even the farmer and his wife unless they were very rich.

(***) Gunnbjörn is a poetic metaphor that means ‘Björn (bear) the warrior’ and here refers to his killer’s nature.

(+) One version of the story that I read long ago had the sister's ghost standing in front of her brother and preventing Björn from seeing him.

(++) Björn's real wife, Þórdís, escaped with a triple whipping.

Copyright notice:
The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

20 May 2010

Short stories 126-130

“The Dream” by Apuleius. Originally from The Golden Ass. A satisfyingly spooky tale with a horrible twist. Recommended.

“The Dove and the Crow” by Anonymous. Originally from the Panchatantra. An interesting Indian fable about the weak coming together to defend themselves from the strong. Rather strangely titled, as the dove is only briefly mentioned in the beginning passages.

“The Story of Devadatta” by Somadeva. Originally from Katha-Sarit-Sagara. An anecdote about the dangers of marrying out of one’s class.

“Jamshid and Zuhak” by Abul Kasim Mansur Firdawsí. Originally from The Book of the Kings. A story about ancient kings and power struggles that reminds me strangely of the Nordic tales of antiquity (Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda) and even the Nordic myths.

Launcelot’s Tourney” by Sir Thomas Malory. Originally from Le Morte d’Arthur. An interesting tale of chivalry and justice. This reminds me that I have been planning to read the Morte d’Arthur for ages. Maybe I should make it a reading task for next month. (I have linked to that part of the book that contains the story - the passage begins in chapter III and ends in ch. VII, with ...every knight new that he was the noble knight, Sir Launcelot.")

15 May 2010

Short stories 121-125

I am changing the short story challenge. Instead of reading stories from all by short story collections books by turn I am going to read the biggest of the unthemed collections, Great Short Stories of the World, from cover to cover. Since it contains over 200 short stories, I expect it will last me until November. When I finish it, I will either go back to the challenge as I originally planned it, or choose another collection.
Henceforth, since some of the stories in this book are so short that including such micro-stories in a challenge like this feels like cheating, I will only count the ones that are over 2 pages long, although I will be reading them all.

And now for the stories:

“The Marvelous Minstrel”. Folk tale. From The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. One of those supposedly humorous folk tales about pointless cruelty to animals that I just don’t get. Do people really think they are funny?

“Don’t You Know Who I Am?” by Adèle Lang. From Big Night Out . About a typically self-centered celebrity bimbo. Quite funny and totally over the top.

From here onward until I finish the book every story will have come from Great Short Stories of the World.

“The Robbers of Egypt” by Heliodorus . Originally from The Æthiopica, Book I. A melodramatic parable.

“The Matron of Ephesus” by Petronius. Originally from The Satyricon. A bawdy tale of the kind that would later be collected in such books as The Decameron.

“The Haunted House” by Pliny the Younger. Originally from Letters. A prototype ghost story that has been repeated in one form or another for at least 2000 years. Dickens even used elements of it in A Christmas Carol. Well told.

14 May 2010

Folk tale: The hidden ones

Continuing from last week, here is another explanation of the origin of elves. The asterisks indicate notes that I have put below the story.

Once upon a time a man was travelling. The story does not state where or when or what his business was, but it was far away and long ago. He got so totally lost that he didn't know where we was or what direction he was heading in. Eventually he came to a farm and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman came to the door and invited him in, in the true spirit of hospitality that was common back then. The inside of the house was clean and inviting and the woman led him to the baðstofa(*), where there were two beautiful young women. These three women appeared to be the only people living on the farm. They received him well, fed him handsomely and showed him to a bed for the night. He asked to share a bed with one of the girls, and was allowed to do so (**).

During the night the man turned to the girl and wanted to make love to her (or take advantage of her) but could not feel her body in the bed. He tried to grab her, but his hands touched nothing but air, but he could still see her right beside him. So he asks her why this is, and she answers:
"Do not be surprised, traveller, for I am a disembodied spirit. Long ago, when the Devil rebelled against God in Heaven, he and all his followers were banished to the outermost darkness. Those who watched longingly after him when he left were also banished from Heaven. But those who did not take sides in the war and joined neither group were banished to the Earth and ordered to take up residence in hillocks, mountains and rocks, and they are called elves or hidden people. They can not live among others than each other and they can do both good and evil and usually to the extreme. They have no bodies like you, human, but can appear to you when they want to. I am one of those spirits and so there is no hope that you can enjoy me in any way other than by looking at me."
The man had to be content with this, and in the morning they sent him on his right way, and he told this story when he arrived at his destination.

* Baðstofa literally means "bathing room", but it was actually the main living space on Icelandic farms, a kind of common room where people ate and slept and did some of their their indoor work, like spinning wool, knitting, minor wood-carving work and so on.
** Bed-sharing was a common practice where space was limited, but usually it was a child sharing a bed with an adult.

Copyright notice:
The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel

Here is another Bibliophilic Book challenge book (my sixth), this one a novel about a famous author. In the story, he is writing his final book, Weir of Hermiston (although it is never mentioned by title).

Year published:2004
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: Samoa, 1894

Possible S-P-O-I-L-E-R-S ahead.

At sunset one day Robert Louis Stevenson meets Mr. Baker, a sinister Scottish missionary, on the beach below his house on Samoa. This meeting is the prelude to a nasty spate of violence that causes a stir in Stevenson’s mind.

The writing is evocative and lovely. The story reworks of some of Stevenson’s own themes, especially those of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, causing the reader some unease because of the suggestion that perhaps Mr. Baker is really Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, or making them wonder if perhaps the whole story is a figment of Stevenson’s fevered imagination.

I think I have mentioned before that I am not particularly fond of authors taking real people and inserting them into novels as themselves and having them say and do things they never would have in real life, but that doesn't apply here, because Manguel simply has imagined a minor episode of Stevenson’s life that doesn’t ring false like so many of these kinds of stories do.

Here is a quote from the book. Robert Louis Stevenson is sitting in a shabby room in Apia in Samoa, having a drink with Mr. Baker and discussing religion:

... Our civilisation is a hollow fraud. All the fun of life is lost by it. All it gains is that a large number of persons can continue to be contemporaneously unhappy on the surface of the globe. But there are so many moments of utter joy, glimpses of paradise, and for those I live. And yet I would not be the instrument of anybody's suffering for the sake of even one of those instants.

Rating: A nice, short read about an interesting author, perfect to whet one’s appetite for reading some of Stevenson's books. 4 stars.

13 May 2010

Bibliophilic book challenge: The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

This book, the 5th I read for the challenge, fits into the Bibliophilic challenge by virtue of the whole story turning on books, reading and literacy. The camel bookmobile, by the way, is a real phenomenon:

Year published: 2007
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: (mostly) a small village in Kenya, 2003.

An American librarian goes to Kenya to help start up a mobile library, carried on camel-back, to bring books to remote villages out in the bush. One day two books are not returned in a tiny nomadic settlement, Mididima, and knowing that unless they are returned the library will stop going to that particular village, the American goes alone to the village to try to persuade the borrower to return them. The village is in conflict about the library: some value it for the promise of literacy and window on the outside world it has brought to the village, while others fear that it heralds the destruction of the tribe’s culture. All of them, however, want to return the missing books because it affects the tribe’s honour and some believe that if honour is lost, disaster will befall the tribe.

This novel brings up some interesting and important questions about the value of literacy and the value of tradition and how they can come into conflict with one another. Some of the people of Mididima appreciate the library for the window it gives them on the outside world (one even dreams about going away for teacher training and coming back to teach the others), but one really has to ask oneself about the usefulness of a book on how to survive an avalanche for a people who have never seen snow. Others fear that all those books about far-away places will make the people yearn for a different lifestyle, bring strange and disturbing customs into the village, possibly even drain away it’s young people, destroy the culture and kill the language, since all the books are either in English or Swahili, and none exist in the language spoken by the Mididima tribe.

Central to the story are the missing books, a perfect MacGuffin with which to drive the narrative, but the side stories are no less interesting. All are skilfully woven together into a flowing and interesting narrative. Other reviewers have accused Hamilton of not resolving the story properly, and it is true that she could have written neat little endings for all concerned, tied up with bows (coloured pink or black, depending on whether they belong to the happy-ending clan or the ‘everyone must die at the end’ brigade), but she chooses to go for a realistic ending that allows the readers, to a certain extent, to make up their own endings for the characters.

Hamilton alters the point of view between chapters, so that we see the story unfolding through the eyes of several characters: the American librarian, the head librarian of the project, the village teacher and his wife, a young girl and her grandmother, the teenage boy who refuses to return the books and his father. Each brings something important to the story. I like it that Hamilton does not fall into the trap of making the tribespeople seem less (less sophisticated, less intelligent, etc.) than the white woman or the educated Africans, merely different in their outlook and thinking, and how she uses the character of the village teacher to bridge the gap of understanding between Fiona and the tribespeople.

The writing style is simple and clear and this book feels almost like a young adult novel, not just the simple use of language but also the way the story is told. This is not to say that it’s a simple story – it certainly isn’t, not with all the questions it asks about culture, education and human relations.

Rating: An interesting novel that will (or should) make you think. A good read. 4 stars.

11 May 2010

Another book of cartoons I am reading

This one is Icelandic, a compilation of several previously published collections of single-panel cartoons by artist and playwright Hugleikur Dagsson. They are sometimes funny, generally shocking and always crude, both in execution and content.

The humour is dark and cutting and there are absolutely no taboos. You might not want your kids to look at or read them, but for exposing society's fears and the sick and sordid things people will say and do to each other they are brilliant. The humour mostly comes from the style, which is child-like and crude, and when combined with the often sickening content it can make you smile or even laugh, in the same way that an old, low-tech splatter movie can - not because it's really funny but because it's so outrageously excessive and over the top that you don't know what else to do. Above all else, they should make you stop and think.

Here is a handful of his cartoons if you want to check them out. He has three books out in English, and his work regularly appears in The Reykjavik Grapevine, as did this interview.

10 May 2010

It's funny

... how one book sometimes leads me to the next. The cover artwork of Sarah Caudwell's The Sibyl in Her Grave reminded me of something, but the name of the cover artist (Virginia Norey) wasn't familiar.

A couple of days after I started reading it I had an errand at the National Library, and took some time to browse. The browsing brought me to the aisle of art books, among which I noticed a whimsical spine with the hand-lettered word Amphigorey on it. It turned out to be the Edward Gorey book I mentioned earlier, and once I opened it, I realised that what the cover of The Sibyl in Her Grave reminded me of was Gorey's artwork.

So I took it home to read, and have been enjoying Gorey's inky black humour between chapters of The Sibyl in Her Grave. I also brought home another volume of cartoons which are no less dark, although cruder than Gorey's both in execution and humour (more on that later).

09 May 2010

Now reading

The Sibyl in Her Grave, by Sarah Caudwell.

Oxford professor Dr. Hilary Tamar (gender unknown) is the narrator. Here she (or he, as the case may be) comments on the season:

It was, as I have mentioned, the second week of August: that season of the year when the warm days of summer draw luxuriantly towards their fruitful and abundant climax and there is an almost universal impulse to give thanks in some way for the richness and generosity of the earth; that is to say, in the case of an upper-class Englishman, to go out and kill something.

This has to be one of the most entertaining first person narrators I have come across, but I expect he (or she, as the case may be) would be terrifying in a class-room.

08 May 2010

Bibliophilic Book challenge: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This book perfectly fits the Bibliophilic Books challenge. Not only is one of the characters preoccupied with reading a novel, but another character is busy writing the same novel, and the third main character is preparing a party to honour a writer friend who has won a literary award.

Year published: 1998
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: New York, end of the 20th century; London, 1923; Los Angeles, 1949.

The lives of three women, separated from each other by decades, are intertwined and mirrored by each other, as each goes about her business on a single day. Clarissa, nick-named Mrs. Dalloway by the friend she is preparing a party for, goes out to buy flowers; Virginia Woolf, in a London suburb, is living in fear of the return of her migraines, writing Mrs. Dalloway and longing to move back into the city; and Laura Brown, in L.A., is straining against the ordinariness of her life, reading Mrs. Dalloway and trying to be a good wife and mother but wanting something else.

The narrative alternates between the three women, and as you get into the story, you see their lives and actions as mirrors or what-if’s of each other, and occasionally they cast long shadows that affect the others. The language is smooth, soft and detailed and the descriptions are sensuous and at times you wonder where the story is going, if it’s going to be another one of those open-ended, resolutionless literary novels, or if there is going to be a climax and a satisfying denouement. But the resolution does come, and you close the book, satisfied by a mostly pleasant but still thought-provoking read.

Rating: An excellent and beautifully written literary novel. 4+ stars.

From what I have read about this novel, it is an echoing of or a tribute to Mrs. Dalloway, so the logical action would be to read that next. If I had read it first, I am certain I would have done what I always do when I read a book after I have seen a movie based on it, namely to compare, even look for similarities. I can’t help doing this, but more than once it has diminished my enjoyment of a book, so I am glad I read this first. Mrs. Dalloway is going on the TBR list, but it might still be years until I get around to reading it.

07 May 2010

Friday night folklore: Eve's hidden children

It is a suitable beginning for this project to start with an origin myth. The Icelandic term that is the linguistic equivalent to the English word "elf" is "álfur", but it is considered somewhat pejorative, which is why we prefer to call them "huldufólk", meaning "the hidden people". There are two stories about their origins in my selection of tales from the Jón Árnason folk tale collection. Here is one:

Once upon a time God came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him joyfully and showed him their house and their possessions, and also their children. God asked Eve if she had any more children than the ones she had shown him, but Eve told him that no, these were all her children. But the truth was that Eve had not had time to give some of the children a wash before God arrived, and so had hidden the unwashed ones out of view. But of course the all-knowing, all-seeing God knew this. So he said to Eve: "That which you have tried to hide from me shall be hidden from man also".

And so Eve's hidden children became invisible to the human eye and took up residence in hills and cliffs, hillocks and rocks. Their descendents are the hidden people, the elves, but the human race is descended from those children of Eve whom she showed to God.

Humans can never see their hidden cousins unless the elves allow themselves to be seen, for they were given the ability to see humans and be seen by them at will.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

Now reading, and listing dilemma (brought on by sleeplessness)

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey. It's going to be a bugger to list, because while it is one volume, it is also a collection of 15 books, previously published separately as standalone works. Do I list it as one book, or as 15?

When I have come across such volumes in the past, I have listed them as separate books, e.g. The Once and Future King as 4 books and The Gormenghast Trilogy as three, but the Gorey books are short works and the whole volume is perhaps 200 pages all in all (it's unpaged, so this is an estimate based on thickness).

05 May 2010

It's been ages...

... since a book made me cry, but the passage below brought tears to my eyes. McLean is writing about a grave he found in the cemetery in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The headstone showed that a couple, living in the late 1800s, had lost 6 young children in the space of 4 years.

Maybe when death is all around you, maybe when everyone's children are dying, maybe when the winter blows cold and the nights are dark and your ten-year old daughter gives a little cough and your heart seizes and you look at your husband with frightened eyes and then the priest comes and then she dies, maybe you find a way to make sense of things. But how, after five have gone, could you have a sixth? And how, when your last boy dies, could you plant a crop, go to church, milk a cow, eat a meal, smile, laugh, carry on?

From Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada, by Stuart McLean.

I'm on the home stretch

...of Welcome Home by Stuart McLean. A rambling, nostalgic journey around the provinces of Canada, nearly 20 years ago. I would quite like to see what things are like now in the small towns McLean visited when he was writing this book.

This book has made me want to visit Canada, although I would probably go on a road trip.

04 May 2010

Short stories 116-120

“The King of Sacrifices” by John Maddox Roberts. From The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives . A rather bloody little lesson on ancient Roman history and religion. Liked the narrative voice – must check out the novels starring Decius Caecilius Metellus.

The Mask” by Guy de Maupassant. From Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories . A rather good story about a man who tries to hang on to his youth.

“Orange Horses” by Maeve Kelly. WT From Wildish Things. A rather horrific story about women in an Irish Traveller community.

“The Case of the Distressed Lady” by Agatha Christie. From Parker Pyne Investigates . Clever story about Christie's least famous problem solver.

The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy. From The Penguin Book of English Short Stories . A well-constructed and -written if a tad melodramatic story.

02 May 2010

Short stories 111-115

“The Girl in the Train” by Agatha Christie. From The Golden Ball . A silly, frothy little mystery.

“One Happy Family” by John S. McFarland. From A Treasury of American Horror Stories. An exploitation of one of those nasty little American hillbilly myths. Rather effectively creepy and a good job of building up a frisson of fearful expectation.

“Drakestail”. Fairy tale. From Best-loved Folktales of the World. A whimsical story about a pint-sized hero with magical helpers. Definite appeal for kids.

“Life” by Bessie Head. From Wayward Girls and Wicked Women . A brilliant but ultimately tragic story about what can happen when two worlds clash. Recommended.

“Lyfsalafúin” (The Pharmacist's Wife) by Anton Tsjekhov. From Á ég að segja þér sögu . Sweet and full of longing and nostalgia.

01 May 2010

The results are in

... for the poll. The folk tales will be appearing on this blog. I will be posting one Icelandic folk tale each Friday night, starting next Friday. I also decided that tales of places and landscape features I have photographed really belong on Iceland etc., so every now and then I will be posting such a tale over there.

Reading report for April 2010

I finished only 9 books in April. This is due to lots of overtime work coming my way. I am also in the process of decluttering my apartment, which is taking a lot of time, during which I listen to Rob Inglis' beautiful reading of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It’s funny, but the more stuff I get rid of, the easier it becomes to throw out even more, and I suddenly found myself able to cull more than 50 books, so the TBR stack has been somewhat reduced. I did put some of the books on a TBR list because I still want to read them, but they are available from the library so there is no reason to have them cluttering up my bookshelves, waiting to be read.

Of the books I read, 1 was a Bibliophilic Challenge Book , 2 were Top Mysteries, 3 were TBR, and 4 were non-challenge books. One of the top mysteries was also TBR.

The books:
  • John Boyne : The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. YA novel about the horrors of the Holocaust.
  • Angela Carter: Expletives Deleted. Literary essays and criticism. Bibliophilic challenge.
  • Bruce Chartwin : The Viceroy of Ouidah. Historical novel.
  • Martha Grimes: The Old Fox Deceiv'd. Murder mystery. TBR challenge.
  • Reginald Hill : Deadheads. Murder mystery. TBR and Top Mystery challenge.
  • Margaret Millar: Beast in View. Top Mystery challenge.
  • Terry Pratchett : Nation. YA adventure novel.
  • Nora Roberts & J.D. Robb: Remember When. Two short interconnected novels, one contemporary, the other part of the In Death series. TBR challenge.
  • Carole Tanenbaum : Fabulous Fakes: A passion for vintage costume jewelry. Fashion history.

Tentative reading plan for May:

I am halfway through several books, including three I mentioned in my last reading plan. They are The Camel Bookmobile, the print version of Making Money, and Welcome Home. Once I finish Welcome Home I may go back to reading Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor, or I might choose another travelogue or possibly one of my several TBR non-fiction history books.

I got several Bibliophilic challenge books from the library a couple of days ago, including The Hours by Michael Cunningham, which I have started reading and like so far. I also picked up a book that may end up as the African book in the Global Reading challenge. I would like to read at least two Top Mystery challenge books, probably Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law and possibly Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.